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Sunday, 26 July 2020

Review of the Fire HD 8 Plus

I intentionally chose to review the Fire HD 8 Plus, to see if its extra cost, in comparison to the regular Fire HD 8, makes it a better choice. Amazon markets its tablets as budget content consumption devices. In this review, I'll argue that the HD 8 Plus's extra features do not add, considering the use case of Fire tablets, anything significant and that the Fire HD 8 is the better option. 

Positives

Most of what I'll consider as positives, in this section, also apply to the Fire HD 8. The previous generation of the Fire HD 8 was frustratingly slow - often the user experienced lag and delays when doing simple tasks, e.g. launching apps, opening e-books and browsing media-rich websites. The Fire HD 8 Plus is noticeably better, but the sluggishness is still there. For media streaming, reading e-books, navigating menus performance is adequate. However, try loading and browsing a media-rich website, and you begin to notice significant slowdowns. 

Considering Fire OS - an operating system designed around Amazon services - the Fire HD 8 Plus's extra RAM, in comparison to the Fire HD 8, is helpful but does not significantly affect the user experience. The Fire HD 10 does not have the 3GB RAM but still performs well. I would instead Amazon bumped the processor performance in the Plus model than add memory.

The Fire HD 8 Plus also exclusively supports wireless charging. This feature makes it is possible to dock the tablet using a charging dock accessory to generate Alexa show mode and convert the tablet into a smart assistant. The smart device experience is compromised as the speakers and microphone are weak. The audio problem can be remedied can with a Bluetooth speaker but the microphone problem is permanent. The microphone does pick-up voice commands but can suffer when the user is further away or when there is even moderate background noise. Another positive of the dock is fast charging - the dock is capable of 10W high-speed wireless charging.

Battery life is fantastic. The advertised up to "12 hours" is accurate - the Fire HD 8 Plus easily gets more than a full day of mixed usage. In standby mode, the Fire HD 8 Plus conserves energy and lasts days with little or no usage. In previous generations, Amazon Fire tablets tended to drain quicker - possibly due to Alexa being enabled - but the issue has now been resolved.  

Amazon also changed the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 8 Plus's aspect ratio. Both tablets have identical dimensions that are now closer to the iPad Mini. This means the tablet is wider, which makes it more suitable for reading. 

Negatives

Out of the box, Fire tablets don't support the Google Play Store. More experienced users will find it relatively straightforward to sideload and install Google Play. However, for the general user, it could be challenging to identify the required applications that need to be installed to get Google Play working. There are minor issues too with the lack of native Google Play support, e.g. updating apps can cause conflicts when the same application exists in the Fire OS and Google Play stores.

The biggest negative is the screen. The Fire HD 8 Plus has the same screen as the Fire HD 8, and this means no lamination and oleophobic coating. The screen is also very reflective even indoors - I would say darker video scenes are almost unwatchable due to the glare. An anti-glare screen protector is a must to remedy fingerprint smudges and the reflective screen.

Of course, there are the expected negatives that are understandable considering the Fire HD 8 Plus is an entry-level tablet. The speakers are weak, performance is adequate at best, the front camera just works, and the screen resolution is passable. Yet none of these negatives severely impacts the use case of this tablet as a content consumption device.

Other budget options

At the £110 full retail price, the Fire HD 8 Plus is now closer to 8-inches budget tablets offered by other vendors. Alternatives include the Huawei MatePad T8, Lenovo Tab M8 and Samsung Tab A 8.0. All these devices, at a similar price, have better cameras, screens and build quality. However, the Fire HD 8 Plus, in comparison to other tablets in this category, has an extra GB RAM. It also should be noted, in contrast to the Fire HD 8 Plus, that Huawei and Lenovo's smaller budget tablets don't support USB-C charging.

One big plus for the Fire HD 8 Plus is its support for HD streaming in both Netflix and Prime Video. Both Samsung and Huawei support this feature, but surprisingly Lenovo does not. Lenovo may remedy this problem with a software update. 

Overall, as is the case with the Fire HD 10, the Fire HD 8 Plus is good value when discounted by Amazon. At full retail price, the better option would be going for one of the Android tablets offered by other vendors.

Conclusion

Considering the use case of Fire tablets, the HD 8 Plus's extra RAM and wireless charging don't substantially improve the user experience. Consequently, it makes better sense to opt for the regular Fire HD 8 model. If Amazon released the tablet with two GB RAM but slightly improved the processor and screen then the Fire HD 8 Plus would justify its place in Amazon's tablet line-up. 

However, the Fire HD 8 Plus's support for wireless charging is unique in the budget tablet category. It also offers useful use cases too. The charging dock accessory turns the tablet into a permanent smart speaker with a screen that can be used, for example, in the kitchen to watch cooking instructional videos or hands-free streaming of radio, podcasts, music and TV shows. Of course, it is possible to use a tablet stand and use voice command to turn on show mode, but this is less convenient than using the charging dock.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

The Kobo Nia or the Kindle Paperwhite?

Kobo released a new entry-level e-reader - the Kobo Nia. At £90 the Nia costs £20 more than the Kindle Basic. Yet, you get twice the storage (8GB) and a sharper 212 PPI display (the Kindle Basic has a 167 PPI resolution). Plus, there are no ads on the Nia. In comparison, Amazon makes the user pay an extra £10 to remove its annoying ads. Without Question, compared to the Kindle Basic, the Kobo Nia is the better value entry-level e-reader. Another positive is Kobo's support of borrowing e-books from public libraries - a service Amazon is yet to offer outside the US.

Despite the price difference, if you are platform agnostic, I would still pick the mid-range Kindle Paperwhite over the Nia. The reason for choosing the Paperwhite is that Amazon sets an official retail price but regularly discounts its devices. Thus, there are e-reader discounts, for example, on Mother's Day, Prime Day, Black Friday and Easter.  In comparison, Kobo discounts its e-readers less frequently. Unless in a hurry to purchase an e-reader, it makes better sense to wait and buy a discounted Kindle Paperwhite that sells between £80 - £100. Though Kobo sometimes lowers the Libra H20 to £130 - at that price, considering size is premium in the e-reader world, the Libra H20 is unbeatable value as the extra inch makes a big difference to the reading experience. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Single-tasking the workspace

Keeping multiple browser tabs isn't a good idea - not only does it mean a cluttered workspace but it also distracts from getting work done. Tab Wrangler is a browser extension that seeks to resolve the tab addiction problem. Still, it merely automatically closes inactive tabs and stores them to be accessed later via a tab corral. The problem with the extension is that the tabs are not entirely out of sight. The bigger problem is multi-tasking and potentially getting distracted from the task that needs to be completed.

The best option, in my view, is to stay focused and single-task. Consequently, what is needed is a complete change in work habits. The question that follows is what is to be done with tabs containing articles and documents? Different options are possible with Kobo and Kindle e-readers:

  • Kobo has Pocket support inbuilt to its software - this means web articles saved via the Pocket browser extension will sync directly to the e-reader. Amazon, on the other hand, supports an official browser extension that can be configured to send formatted web articles to a Kindle.
  • The Kobo Forma supports Dropbox integration that makes it possible to download and transfer a PDF document to Dropbox to be then synced. Afterwards, the wirelessly transferred document can be read using KOReader. Kindles support the option to email a PDF document via email directly; it is also possible to convert the PDF document to text-based formatting to be read more easily on a six-inches e-reader. However, the results of the format will depend on the PDF document sent.

Options are higher with Android e-readers. One possibility is to use Folder Sync Pro to work between devices wirelessly. Folder Sync Pro supports Dropbox, Google Drive and Box. The Pocket app can also be installed from the Google Play Store to read stored articles.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The Hisense Q5 is an intriguing tablet

Hisense is not afraid to innovate and has recently released three E-Ink phones: the A5, A5C and A5 Pro. The A5 has a monochrome E-Ink screen, and both the A5C/A5 Pro have colour ones. As a niche product, the user base of an E-Ink phone is small. It includes those wanting a phone for the basics - e.g., texting, making calls and reading news - that also doubles as a little e-reader.

In April 2020, Hisense announced the release of the Q5 - a monochrome tablet that uses a Reflective LCD (RLCD) display that does not emit any light. Considering that the display Hisense uses is based on LCD technology, then the refresh rate is far superior to E-Ink. If the refresh rate is is comparable to LCD tablets, as it seems to be in this video, then the Q5 offers the benefits of E-Ink but with the added advantage of tablet versatility. Android e-readers advertise that you are not restricted to one e-book store, as it is possible to install the Kindle app, Google Books or Kobo. However, in reality, most third-party apps are unusable due to the limitations of E-Ink. Hisense offers the dual advantage of eliminating light emission and the capability of running third-party applications designed for smartphones and tablets with little compromise. Other than third-party e-reading apps there are also significant advantages for productivity, e.g. word processing, browsing media-rich websites and even streaming video (albeit in black and white).

Three issues of concern are the low resolution, battery life and the dependence on external light. The Hisense Q5 has a low-resolution 1280X800 10.5-inches display and considering the RLCD screen, it is not clear if the text quality will be further compromised.  Regarding battery life, Hisense configured the Q5 with a 5050 mAh battery capacity - the capacity is not big for a regular tablet. Of course, this is the first time we have seen a tablet with RLCD display technology so it is not clear if the battery life will be comparable to E-Ink. However, as there is no backlight, the Hisense Q5's RLCD should be far more energy-efficient than an LCD tablet. 

The dependence of external light is the biggest concern. An E-Ink display is closer to a printed paper. It does not rely on light falling on the screen as its underlying technology is based on tiny positive black and negative white microcapsules that are activated by an electric field that moves these capsules to the surface.  In contrast, as noted, a reflective display uses the same underlying technology of LCD but needs external lighting as there is no backlighting. Being dependent on surrounding lighting, this opens the question if readability and contrast are affected. Further, from the released specifications, it is not clear if the RLCD has a front light installed. As the tablet has just been released in China, it'll be interesting to follow reviews to see if the Hisense Q5 performs well in low lighting conditions.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

How to install and use dictionaries on Boyue e-readers

As posted before, Boyue's e-readers require trial and error to discover its features. Out of the box, for example, Boyue does not pre-install or support the download of wirelessly hosted dictionaries. Likebook e-readers come with a manual in which there is a section on adding a thesaurus file but the instruction provided merely guides the user to place StarDict files in the DICT folder. However, there are no further instructions on where to find dictionaries to install. A repository of StarDict dictionaries is available here; dual-language translation dictionaries can be found here.

The process of installing a dictionary is relatively straightforward but might be more challenging for the novice user that has previously used a Kindle or Kobo e-reader. First, it is necessary to find a StarDict dictionary. Second, the dictionary comes compressed in a TAR file and needs to be unpacked using, e.g., WinRar. Third, the folder in the unpacked dictionary should be copied and pasted into the DICT folder. Finally, as the Chinese system dictionary is set as default, the user then needs to enter the dictionary app to select the order side-loaded dictionaries appears in the native software. After completing the set-up process, it is possible to switch between dictionaries by swiping right after selecting a word.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

OpenStax textbooks

OpenStax, part of Rice University, is an educational initiative that releases and updates free (a great word!) textbooks. Subjects include, for example, sociology, economics, astronomy and psychology. The books can be downloaded directly from their website in PDF format. It is also possible to download the textbooks as an e-book from the Kindle store (search 'openstax' to find the books). OpenStax also hosts open educational resources that supplement the textbooks. 

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Fire HD 8 Plus: Initial impressions

I've started using Amazon's recently released Fire HD 8 Plus. The Fire HD 8 Plus is near identical to the regular Fire HD 8 but with an extra GB of RAM and support for wireless charging. Due to the support for wireless charging, Amazon also released, in collaboration with ANGREAT, a fast-charging dock that activates Alexa show mode.

My initial impressions of the tablet are more negative than positive. The main problem is the very reflective screen that affects viewing even indoors. In my view, an anti-reflective screen protector is a must for the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 8 Plus. The positives are better performance and the extra RAM that makes switching between apps smoother.

In a future post, I'll write-up a short review and compare the Fire HD 8 Plus to other budget Android tablets.